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When should children begin music lessons?

The old age adage of New Year’s resolutions was thrust upon me the other day by this 10-year-old wearing designer alpargata shoes who is determined to learn to play a musical instrument this year. “My resolution this year is to become a famous musician; uncle, do you think I am still too young to learn to play the piano?” he asked me.

in the groove with Fred Zindi

A young girl playing music on a piano

A young girl playing music on a piano

I told him that he was too late. “Look at Michael Jackson. He began his career as lead singer of the Jackson 5 at the age of five. As for me, by the time I was your age, I had learned how to play the guitar and was already in a band.”

I am not sure when I started music but at the age of 10 I was already in a band performing at my primary school with the late Jethro Shasha, Newton Kanengoni and others. We called ourselves The Falcons. When we became teenagers, we had performed with several other groups namely, The Dot, The 2D Sounds and The Pop Settlers. Jethro went on to play with The Great Sounds, Tuttenkhamein Movement, Baked Beans, Music Ye Africa and several other groups.

Almost all children love music! Studies have shown that music education enhances a child’s comprehension abilities, helps them with mathematical concepts, assists in the development of fine motor skills, and helps to build self-confidence. Many children with special needs have been known to excel at music even when they are unable to communicate or participate in regular structured activities. Look at Stevie Wonder, Fanyana Dube, Paul Matavire and the Jairos Jiri Band as examples of people with special needs. In general, music enhances the lives of many children and adults as well.

There is therefore the need for music lessons to begin at pre-school level. I was talking to Dr Makanda from the Ministry of Primary and Secondary Education the other day about this need. He totally agrees with me in this regard and he promised that he would see to it that such a programme was implemented within his ministry.

Studies have shown that children can actually hear music in the womb, and some seem to develop a taste for certain styles of music as a result. Age-appropriate music programmes are not easy to find, and finding an instructor who keeps it interesting can be a real challenge, whether in a group or individual setting. It is good to know that the Zimbabwe College of Music, Kwanengoma College and Music Crossroads are already training students who will become music instructors for the ministry in the near future.

Classes for mothers and babies are a great way to begin, even with children as young as six to eight months. These classes are usually 30-40 minutes long, and they require active participation on the part of parents. Programmes designed for toddlers aged between 18 and 24 months can be very popular as well; these still require parental participation, but by this age, children start to actively engage in the different activities in class.

Programmes for three and four-year-olds in Early Childhood Development (ECD) classes should now be readily available. This is really the ideal age for kids to start their music experience. Most of these programmes should be about 30-35 minutes in length, and involve props, movement and singing. Some even integrate arts and crafts and free play with rhythm instruments and props to music. Parents typically are not required to participate in these classes.

For children aged five and upwards, sometimes the best way to begin their musical path is to have them take some type of group piano or group guitar lessons with other children their age. If the teacher is creative, he or she will integrate activities such as music games and crafts into the curriculum. One can also begin to consider private individual instruction. Piano/keyboard lessons are sometimes easiest for children aged five, six and even older. One year of instruction on the piano or keyboard provides a great foundation as children learn basic music theory concepts such as the music alphabet, what a quarter note, half note, whole note is, what a semi-breve is, and the location of the keys on the keyboard. In addition, they learn fun kids songs like Shiri Yakanaka, Kachembere KeGudo, Mary Had a Little Lamb and Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. If the piano is not their thing, the guitar or violin can provide a great foundation for children to start their lesson path.

When they turn seven, instruments such as the guitar, mbira, marimba, drums and other string instruments can be introduced. The same concepts are covered, but children who have had at least six months to one year of piano under their belt (and thus already know the basic elements of music) find it easier to make the transition between instruments. Consequently, they are able to engage with the new instruments a lot faster.

After deciding that learning an instrument is right for your child, the next immediate question is: “How do I get them to practise now that we have taken the plunge?” You know your child best.
It may take some time to find the best way to accomplish practising. Most children, especially at first, need some kind of external incentive. Try different ideas, such as a reward chart that enables them to receive something at the end of the week for their efforts — like a new book, 15 extra minutes to play a video game, or a trip out for ice cream.

Parents considering enrolling their child in lessons should realise that it is important to help their child develop a sense of commitment to learning the instrument. While I don’t believe in music becoming a torturous experience, I do believe that it’s important to not allow kids to “hop” from one activity to the next without ever completing anything. For example, if you have committed to a class for 10 weeks, your child needs to understand that the commitment should be carried through. If they have committed to lessons for a calendar school year, express to them that it is important to complete the year; as the year draws to a close, you can start discussing their interest in other areas or another instrument. Tell them, though, that you do require them to continue to do their best; if you see that they are making a consistent effort, you are more than willing to allow them to try something else once this commitment is completed. This lesson is not only important in music education, it is a crucial life skill, and this provides a good opportunity to acquire it early.

Remember, music was created to bring us joy. A crucial part of childhood is to experience joy together with one’s parents; saturating a child’s life with music from the very start is a simple, but great way to do so.

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